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Waste policy faces an uncertain future

In 2015 the waste and recycling industry lobbied hard for the incoming Government to set up an Office of Resource Management (ORM). Hopes were high that Labour would include the commitment in its manifesto, but it failed to appear – as did a Labour Government.

polling star

polling star

This time round, only the Aldersgate Group seems to have called for an ORM. The industry as a whole is instead focusing attention on issues such as environmental laws following Brexit, secondary materials markets, infrastructure and waste crime.

Once again, of the three main parties, only the Lib Dems have put waste and recycling in their manifesto. It repeats a series of wide-ranging policies set out in 2015, including a 70% recycling target, overhaul of waste taxes and a Zero Waste Act. The party also wants to introduce a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups.

Some industry bodies seem to be increasingly tailoring their demands on the assumption that there will be a Conservative Government. Introducing the Renewable Energy Association’s manifesto for the election, chief executive Dr Nina Skorupska made a not-sosubtle reference to the prime minister’s mantra when she argued that: “For the renewables industry, strength and stability are things we crave more than any other.”

As she noted, the industry was rocked in recent years as a result of former energy secretary Amber Rudd’s decision to redraft the Government’s renewable energy policy and the implications of the Brexit vote.

“With natural resources dwindling and commodity prices exposed to the volatility of the markets, working towards a circular economy is becoming ever-more essential.”

Mathew Prosser, UK managing director, DS Smith Recycling

Unsurprisingly, the main demand from industry for this General Election has been for the parties to offer stability and clarity in terms of policy-making.

One of the key demands has been a reassurance that the parties will main tain the protections currently offered under EU law. Both of the major parties are currently indicating that they wish to offer exactly this.

In the Great Repeal White Paper, the Government committed to ensuring that “the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law”. But Labour’s manifesto says the party will drop the Great Repeal Bill and introduce an EU Rights and Protections Bill, which will seek to avoid any “detrimental change to… environmental protections”.

This would mean ensuring that “all EU-derived laws are fully protected without qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses”. Indeed, the party goes further and pledges to ensure that the UK “does not lag behind Europe in… environmental standards in future”.

However, these reassurances in terms of environmental law may not be sufficient as a guarantee for the sector.

“Environmental progress, protections and the value of our regulated resource industries have been hard won in past decades. We hope this is not lost on future policy-makers.”

Ray Georgeson, chief executive, Resource Association

One issue, as highlighted by a report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is that, “simply transposing legislation without replacing the governance arrangements will lead to significant weakening of environmental protections in many areas”. This issue has not been significantly addressed by either the Conservatives or Labour.

The stated purpose of this election is to vindicate the approach already being taken by the Government towards Brexit. As a result, the Tory manifesto is unlikely to go significantly beyond pre-existing announcements in terms of its direction of travel.

This will leave questions unanswered around issues such as the emissions trading system and the future of the carbon price floor. But the Government’s insistence that the UK should be beyond the purview of the European Court of Justice is likely to mean it must leave a majority of common arrangements with the EU. Until this issue is fully settled, it is unlikely the Government will give any detailed proposals on post-Brexit arrangements.

“Rising costs, endemic waste crime and a policy vacuum has placed immense pressure on the UK waste and resources sector in recent years.”

Jacob Hayler, executive director, Environmental Services Association

It should also be noted that there continues to be pressure within the Conservative Party for the leadership to weaken this guarantee over time. This does not necessarily mean a radical departure from existing UK targets, but could mean that policy direction changes as the Government adapts to life outside the EU.

In response to the consultation on the Great Repeal Bill, waste industry leaders, including the RWM Ambassadors, called for the Government to take steps to increase an emphasis on resource efficiency. More recently, the Resource Association called on the Government to make “a long-term commitment to the development of a circular economy (CE)”.

The principle of this argument does not appear to be rejected by senior Conservative figures. But the discussion in policy circles is no longer restricted by the boundaries of EU directives.

Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank argued in its Going Round in Circles report that the UK should abandon the EU’s CE package and pursue a strategy based on maximising resource productivity, minimising the environmental impact and reducing the burden on society.

These proposals chime with comments already made by resource minister Therese Coffey, whose suggestion in the EAC that policy should “focus on outcomes rather than being prescriptive” echoed the Policy Exchange’s criticisms of the CE proposals.

Given the increasingly fluid discussion of policy, the inherent uncertainty of the upcoming Brexit negotiations and the relatively low threat posed by the Opposition, there is little indication that the Government will make policy commitments that will tightly bind it to a particular path after the UK leaves the EU, although the broad direction of travel is likely to be indicated.

“The next Government must continue the journey towards a clean environment and better resource productivity.”

Chartered Institution of Wastes Management manifesto AA

Moreover, policy commitments that are offered may not be sufficiently robust to reassure industry. An example came during the development of the litter strategy. In January, Coffey indicated that she was considering the idea of forcing customers to pay an extra 10p or 20p for every bottle or container they bought, which could then be reclaimed through a deposit return scheme.

Come February, a Defra spokesperson said that there were “no plans for a deposit return scheme”, arguing, “almost all local authorities now collect plastic bottles as part of their general waste collection services”.

The eventual consultation on the strategy did see the Government propose some measures which could prove effective in tackling issues facing the waste sector, including a proposal to introduce community sentences for fly-tipping and combat waste crime. Butthis reluctance to take more substantial steps may mean that future measures proposed by a Conservative Government will be relatively unambitious and not binding.

Labour has proposed only “guiding targets” for a plastic bottle deposit scheme in its manifesto and working with food manufacturers and retailers to reduce waste.

The reluctance of politicians to make solid commitments is understandable and perhaps even appropriate given that the next two years will see radical changes, not only to the UK’s international relationships but also to the basic governance structure of the nation.

Nevertheless, a Government may be forced to concede more than it would like if it is to maintain inward investment to the UK. Industry calls for investment and support are likely to be met in some areas, given the push by both parties for greater public sector investment, either through the Conservatives’ Industrial Strategy or Labour’s National Investment Bank.

However, as the broader questions affecting the UK green sector go unanswered, these assurances may prove inadequate to attract more private sector investment in an industry that has found the Government to be more than a little fickle in the past.

Madhav Bakshi is political analyst at DeHavilland

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